Sunday, November 30, 2008


There is an argument to be made here that pedagogy has a role in politics. Education is often examined in politics in superficial ways. These are a few of the concepts that routinely appear in this line of discourse: If you study you can become a good president or if you don’t study a bad president. If you know your history you can avoid repeating mistakes. Historically, everyone who has succeeded has had a quality Education whether it is formal or informal. So and so was influenced by these thinkers, they are always intellectually curious, they ask the right questions, or they have the smarts to work with and learn from people who are smarter than themselves.

These lines of thoughts have their merits and flaws but there is a more complex discussion that can be held. There is an interplay between pedagogy and politics that manifests itself in the behavior of its agents. It is not understood by some in the public and many who say they represent the public seem to work with the notion that all of them don’t. If it is understood by the public, then it is not discussed as much at least by those who say they are speaking for the public. The person who puts himself or herself to scrutiny in the public, has a vocabulary beyond words. It is the gesture. It is the image. It is the costume or uniform. The walk. The perception of the context. The cadence and organization of the message. Knowing this and using it can be a tool for social justice if effectively used to promote a cause. Sadly, those who use it do not always do things that promote social justice. It is up to the public to take up the slack.

In politics, particularly in a debate, the quintessential performance of this is put out there that everyone can use as a touchstone. These are skills and dispositions that can be used in your life. These are things that are mixed with your message. This is where society plays itself out. The individual interacting with the other individual. The community that watches it and learns from it consciously and unconsciously things they take on one level and other things they take on another level. These are all issues that are sometimes contradictory.

A historical campaign for the Presidency such as that of 2008 in the United States, with a future and first black president, with the potential for the first female president, with the potential for the first female vice president, with a veteran of a vintage much older than the norm, has enough public interest in it and significance to it, that it is safe to say that it can become a case study for future generations to follow and explore much like those that involved Lincoln, Kennedy, Nixon, or Reagan. One can safely discuss it today and know that tomorrow at some point, it is going to be discussed also somewhere else. It is the subject of future artworks, dissertations, articles, documentaries, scripts, plays, reports and even essays. It is a good case study to use to understand how pedagogy effect politics.

Any political contest is a fight for power. This fight for power is a fight for different visions of social justice. This presidential election in particular was an important event. It was seemingly examined in various ways and yet not everything that could be said about it was said. People noticed the wordings. Some looked at the body language. They discussed tactics. They discussed strategy. There is a lot that can be learned from this campaign and a lot of what can be learned about it has to do with Education. It may not be clear exactly what that is and so it is worth reflecting on when it comes to the power of pedagogy and its physical incarnation.

In this campaign more than many others in recent years, the candidate with the most formal education tended to do better. Part of this was to some extent set up by the narrative that the Bush administration was incompetent, that Bush was prey to people around him who were much smarter. And that further more Bush extolled his anti-intellectualism and his lack of intellectual curiosity. All this was marked into contrast by the narratives of both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton who both excelled in school and used it to excel personally. In a change year, the voters decided that having gone to school was good after all.

The gestures. The language. The organization of thought. The physical vocabulary of the image each candidate represented was not just a reflection of their personalities, their own innate skills, but also a reflection of the vocabulary of each discipline they followed in their Education. Looking closely at each actor in the campaign, we can argue that some tendencies manifested themselves. Here is an outline of some of them that may make some one reflecting back on the campaign or reviewing the images of it, think again.

Sarah Palin for example was educated in several schools. She had many interests but her focus has been on communication. There is something about the way she presents herself that has some of the best traits we expect from a communicator pushing a message to the masses. Her main talking points are outlined by simple repeatable slogans and concepts such as “Drill, Drill, Drill” and “lipstick on a pitbull.” These slogans give the mind easily accessible images. The lipstick on a pitbull remarks sounds like a turn on a familiar phrase which in turn makes it not surprising that Barack Obama would get into trouble by discussing “Lipstick on a pig” in a passage he may or may not regret and which he may have inadvertently trapped himself in or which he may have purposely followed. Political scientists and language and media experts are awash with research that shows that how you combine worlds can easily trigger responses in a listener that can lead them to think about something, end a sentence, complete an argument, or fall into a Freudian slip. Palin’s “lipstick on a pitbull” idea is also communication savvy because of the way it uses the ploy of linking two contrasting ideas together in a way that is memorable and humorous.

People who found Palin folksy down home language and persistence in sticking to particular conversational paths simplistic or incompetent missed the fact she was also making herself very accessible, and memorable. There is an argument to be made that Palin’s experience with television journalism should have made it easier for her to do better in interviews with people like Katie Couric but the fact is that it could have disadvantaged her. Television news teaches a person to work for the soundbyte in thirty to fifteen second chunks, it tells them to follows certain scripts, and it keeps all discussion to a surface level since there is only so much that can be broadcast. As the person doing the interview, she was also not used to be on the wrong side of the microphone at a moment of national attention to the level she was at. Excerpts of her debates in Alaska do show that she succeeds in a longer drawn out series of debates but this was not possible in the presidential campaign of 2008. It should also be noted that her communication education is not limited to broadcast journalism but to various other publicity intensive ventures. One could argue that the beauty pageant might have taught her less than a broadcast journalism education but she uses as much from it or more than her formal communications education.

It should also be said that Palin has mastered the visual vocabulary of a communicator in the video age with or without the help of people who selected her very expensive wardrobe. Her many quirky accessories are all set to be at the level of the close up camera be it a polar bear pendant she often wore before the presidential campaign, or the square-ish modern glasses she took on. There was no handbag or gloves to crop out of a picture. The dresses may have set an important tone but they had to be panned out into view by a camera to be assessed.
The face is the key to centering all images and most communicator’s know they must work the camera from the chest up because of this. Actors know this and use props and gestures to work the camera. Carol Burnett’s pull on the ear and Clint Eastwood’s small cigar movement are classic examples of how this is used and the ultimate political actor Ronald Reagan used the gesture (a rolling of the eyes) with a repeated slogan (there you go again) to dismiss opponents and support his narrative. It is no surprise that Palin had her assortment of winks and nods to use to augment her words.

A fault of Palin the communicator is her lack of stage craft in a larger sense beyond her. At times it seems to be partly tied to the fact that she has focused only on controlling herself. Other times it seems like a kind of cultural issue. When she held an interview as a man killed a turkey behind her, it seemed like an obvious mistake. Yet to see it as a mistake is in part an acknowledgement of our culture. Many Americans eat meat from slaughterhouses and they support this slaughter by continuing to buy their meat without reflecting on how it came to their kitchen table but the irony is that they do not want to see it killed. Palin goes in the other direction and goes to a place where they are selected and slaughtered in public. She is contrast to decades of political stagecraft where politician spared a turkey with fanfare but have supported a slaughterhouse industry with little publicity. In another time, Palin’s frontier woman attitudes would have been respected by people of the old world who knew what it was like to go hungry in the countryside and have to kill what moves to support a family. In today’s world, it seem anachronistic, bizarrely, and worst of all patently unnecessary.

John McCain has had a primarily military Education of the officer variety with some focus on technical matters such as the flying of a plane. A body ravaged by torture has left him with a physicality that does not help him. Various nervous ticks within camera range such as blinking and grimacing also hurt him. He is repetitive and has some good anecdotes as a communicator in the short terms but the militaristic pedagogy within him overrides most of his talent. It has been the subject of his success and also the point of his down fall politically in the campaign when all other issues are taken off the table.

Steadfastness to a cause and using a principle for decision making highlight a soldier’s career and their ability to draw respect from the people they lead. McCain’s captivity story is persistance to this idea (in this case, the principle that prisoners leave in the order they came) even when he could have been let out of suffering early and it is what earned him respect and a political career. It also marked his early political career when he stuck to ideas and not political expediency. His support for the war even when he knew it could lose him a political career in the campaign was also an example of this.

Formal military education in recent years also provides concepts that do not help in a political campaign and frankly has not helped many of our recent soldiers. The military during the Vietnam era has had a concept of sending soldiers out to pockets of skirmishes and popping them out and sending them to other places. There is no consistency and no holding of ground. It attests to the failures of the war. McCain’s campaign also jumped around a lot jumping from skirmish to skirmish never holding a political ground for long. His discussion about the problems with tactics and strategies was something he himself had to reevaluate. It is interesting that the people in his campaign who gave it order where those with military background. Game changing moves that smacked of desperation also harken back to the psychological games and propaganda messages soldiers played on their enemies even as they were losing wars. The treating of the enemy with some kind of honor is also a concept McCain used and it left him in conflict with his own campaign when there were moment when people on his staff wanted to attack the Obama campaign in ways McCain felt were dishonorable. It should be said that not all of his military education is formal. Informally he learned the art of being hazed to make one self accepted. It may be on one level why his strength lay in dealing with comedy that others would shy away from.

The business school disciples were represented by the likes of Mitt Ronmey and to some extant President Bush. Both men represent two of the possible manifestations of the discipline. Bush was not running for office at the moment but his presence was part of most of the debates. Bush’s business school approach favored a figurehead managerial style with heavy delegation and an emphasis on loyalty and the towing of a company line. Romney’s more hands on approach did appeal to many voters. For Romney, his business mentality made him very successful as an organizer and a spokesperson to an extent before the election but during the election much of his debates and campaigning followed a point by point business presentation pattern that may work in a board room where no one has to like you but did not translate to the popularity contest that is a campaign. Romney also did not seem to stand out in some ways and this again can be part of his business education. Some leaders see it better to be as less ocntroversial as possible so as to not hurt the company. Some leaders like to be as normal and boring as possible to highlight the people they lead and thus let the spotlight shine on them. This might have helped him as governor where he had to count on many underlings to make things happen but could have cost him in a presidency run.

Romney also studied law but he has shaken much of the lawyer like mannerisms other politicians have in a way someone like Rudy Guliani has not. Guliani was uncomfortably the lawyer without a case who continued to go forward hoping for a break. Fred Thompson also took on the southern lawyer motiff and it hurt along with perhaps an actor’ sense of waiting for his scene to happen. His scene did not happen, at least not in a scripted way, and he was not the kind of dynamic actor that could improvise one. An interesting character in an ensemble where the weight is shared on television, he was a less compelling character where he tried to share the stage with opponents who all wanted to be leading men and women.

It is not surprising that ultimately most of the more successful candidates studied law. Lawyers were less effective when they dealt with other lawyers and were more effective when they faced non-lawyers. It seemed that in debate the rhetorical and argumentative skills of a lawyer made them seem more effective in debates and in the campaign stump.
Hillary Clinton brought up a case against Obama with facts that were cleverly shaded. All were geared toward creating doubt. The Resko trial was brought up more than once to darken his character. She argued that he was not a muslim with the caveat that this was as far as she knew which hinted that there could be some dark secret that she did not know. During the primaries, her husband tried to link Obama to a history of black candidate failure with what seems to be racist code wording to some. Her husband then went out of his way at times to endorse him with out ever actually endorsing him after his wife lost the nomination. Then there were attempts to gain the favor of the jury of public opinion with hyperbolized stories of war zone landings, victimhood by a media conspiracy run by the good ole boys club, and moments of showing humanity through tears that some felt were staged.

Joe Biden clearly followed a lawyerly tact in his speeches and arguments. Some of his arguments were literally organized in the three point bursts found commonly in courtroom. He also used words to paint his opponnents. Subject verb 911 attacks literally sunk the Guliani campaign.

Finally Barack Obama seemingly designed his entire campaign into one long trial. The final weeks of the campaign were literally the final arguments he was making. On the campaign stump he would literally repeat what his opponent would say and do a rebuttal or redirect of a witness. One thing that clearly helped him was the fact that when he was asked a question he tended to answer it directly and immediately before moving on to other matters. This is something that lawyers train their witnesses and clients to do and he seems to have taken on his own advice. He also decided when to push a losing issue and when not to often simply conceding a point, This is something he often did with Hillary Clinton effectively negating the power of a continuing conversation on a topic and providing the impetus and freedom to move on to another topic.

So far, the differences in Education amongst the political actors have been highlighted but there is a common educational characteristic to all of them. Formally and informally they are all students of the discipline of political science. Thus they could all be examined for use of skills they learned from the pedagogy of it. Only in political science can the adjective Machiavellian be used in the best sense of the word as a compliment to describe some one. The lesson in the past was to play the idiot or to use the idiot so that those who underestimated you could be exploited. To some extent, it was argued that Bush played the lovable fool to Gore’s super intellectual in the past and that in recent years, Bush has been used by Dick Cheney. The lesson most candidates failed to recognize except Sarah Palin and John McCain in 2008 was the idea of lowering expectations. Both Rudy Guliani and Hillary Clinton painted themselves into acorner where they painted a picture of inevitability that could not be sustained. There are other lessons from Machiavelli that were used in this season. The lesson is to promote idealism and values while on the other hand using a politics of ruthlessness and any means necessary. Almost all who watched the campaign felt that the idealism Obama promoted disguised the fact that he was a politician first and foremost.

It was clear that the victory of Obama was predicated early on when he learned the lessons of current political science thought. Using what was learned from the successful campaigns of Kennedy, Reagan, and President Clinton, Obama wisely chose to grab a positive, up lifting change message early. By taking on this message early, others were forced to go negative to attack it because they could not come up with their own positive message that could be as effective without seeming to validate his initial move and in the process invalidating themselves. Obama was lucky in that he survived long enough so that this message gained value and did not get coopted away with his demise. Learning from the mistakes of John Kerry Obama counteracted immediately whenever something like a swift boat ad emerged. Perhaps most importantly he took the lessons of grass roots organization in the civil rights era he read about, the community organization of his Chicago early career, and the lessons learned from John Dean’s failed campaign in terms of organizing oneself through the internet and used it effectively to make a fundraising juggernaut and self sustaining organizing culture. Obama also understood that in politics the campaign that made the smallest amount of mistakes tended to win. He even learned lessons from the Bush administration such as controlling the information was sent to the media.
The argument that pedagogy has something to do with campaign behavior suggests that campaign success is tied not to just rigidly following the dogma of a selected discipline or two. If this were true, many unsuccessful candidates would be successful. Campaign success is tied to mixing the best of each dicipline together in a metapedagogy of political action. In Education for example, when Obama was the professor explaining something in a flight of rhetorical fancy he was less successful because he seemed to be talking down to voters as though they were his students. When Obama the educator emerged in a softer form to give a simple story or explanation of something in a humbler, more naturalistic tone before answering a question he was much more successful. One example of this is in the debate when he chose to explain the way the economy and the bail out effected everyone. He took a complex issue and made it relatable to everyone instead of taking a complex issue and making it simple to divide people. He divided people for example with his professorial bitterness and clinging to guns and religions speech. Religion and guns were made into a crutch in the logic of his speech which divided the people he was talking to from the people he was talking about and adversely had the effect of diving him from potential voters who do not se these issues as crutches but understandably as part of their lives that are being diminshed by a person who is hoping to represent them. Thus Obama learned to get the best from what he learned from the pedagogy of teaching.
His campaign success overall however was tied to connecting that to other pedagogies. His understanding of sociology, psychology, and history helped him craft narratives that he could play out to imspire people to act socially towards his cause. He did just that by often using his insights into the African American community and civils rights activists to create a campaign that often used events, images, and words to reference and revived older narrative. Obama for example often referenced the struggles of Martin Luther King and as his campaign wore on words like redistribution that King used appeared in his rhetoric. His use of Greek columns in some ways harkened back to old images of Martin Luther King speaking in Washington. In time, people began to work in these narratives with out prodding from cues. Obama himself did not have to create many of these details in the beginning and less once the culture was self sustaining in his campaign.

For example, the silk screen blue red images of Barack Obama profile found in many posters were probably designed by an advertising team or group of artists and not by the candidate himself. The value of the image however is that it is not unlike that of the image of Che Guevara that has been usurped by the youth in recent years and appears in many t-shirts. This parallel of an Obama narrative to a Guevara narrative links the idea of change to revolution to two groups that may want it i.e. the youth vote and some hispanic groups. This image had the polish of professionals hired at the beginning of the campaign. Once the campaign developed a culture that was self sustaining people inspired by Obama could help his campaign with out his direct help. The Obama image appeared in various ways through out the culture. People campaigned for him in their neighborhoods. It could be argued that this culture seeped into the popular media. The early attacks on Sarah Palin and her immediate mockery in comedy sketches effectively dealt with a problem that Obama apparently did not anticipate and did not know how to deal with early on.

Obama during the during campaign and after his victory has effectively used the pedagogy of various disciplines to maintain his success. The seal he developed to mimick the presidential seal gave him the props of an actor in a theatre. After the campaign when he rolled out his economic team to stand behind him during his first press conference, he was effectively doing what he learned in law. In law, you impress the other side by bringing in the major players in a law firm to stand by you as you make the big pitch. His switch from King to Lincoln as heroes in his discussions is a change of historic parallels to meet the change in his status from a potential leader of a divided nation to a leader of a divided nation.

The lesson for anyone reflecting on how pedagogy effects politics is not that one should develop a grab bag of skills from different disciplines to run for office. Instead one should strive to learns broadly from every subject and apply it to what they do. Ultimately one has to make decisions about what to use and when to use it and to what degree. Effective use of all this learning however in one’s own daily life can place a person in a power position to effect change. Some may argue that Barack Obama has put himself in the ultimate power position to effect social change. The fact is that he is less powerful than the millions of people that make social change happens in this country everyday. They do more than just put people in the White House. They could do more with informal and formal education to support them.

That is the ultimate lesson of this line of thought. The idea is not to improve on the mechanics of pedagogy and politics. That is too narrow in scope. For example, it was clear that through out the campaign Obama stuck to a narrow range of topics and that he had scripted out possible responses and arguments in this range. It is also possible that he scripted out possible arguments and responses in the nearer boundaries of this range. This is what lawyers do. They know that you can leave a window or a door open in an argument because an opponent might use and if you do, you must know what lies beyond that door and window. Like your own personal maze you may even trick opponents into using them. It was clear that Obama could handle debates because they were within his range and the doors and windows that were opened he could deal with. He also knew that if the opponents went through them they too risked opening themselves up to attack. Thus the moments of most difficulty for Obama were when outsiders he had ot counted on fully like Joe the Plumber or even Sarah Palin expanded the range. When the range was expanded he had to reveal more of himself. In general, revelation was not a bad thing for Obama since for many voters, the more they learned about him the more they liked him. It was clear however that the more he revealed the more there was to debate about and the more there was the possibility that he would make a mistake. His second election campaign does not have that particular advantage although he may be strengthened by others because he will no longer be a total mystery or clean slate.

The lawyers Obama faced understood this but because they were not new to politics they had too many issues with their own careers to risk opening up the range of issues too much against a person who was relatively a clean slate or a mystery when compared to them. Non-lawyers like McCain also restricted themselves for various other reasons. McCain restricted himself because of a sense of honor when it came to how much dirty politicking could be done and also because he simply could not keep up with the speed of the communication skills and thinking on his feet that Obama was capable of. For Obama to be weakened as a candidate someone with as blank a slate as Obama had to play out this game on a larger range of issues and hope that Obama could stumble or could be perceived to stumble. The entire boxing ring had to be used. The battlefield had to be expanded. Something closer to a total war had to be declared.

This arguably happened in a smaller sense when the public in a debate asked him if he would sit down and talk to our enemies. It could have happened in a more disastrous and more complex way if the range of issues were expanded. Clearly there were many reasons why the range of issues was not expanded beyond the pedagogical thought and personal interests of candidates. It appears for example that part of American political culture has long entered into an agreement not to talk about certain matters in debates watched by the world. The lack of discussion about Latin America is just one example.

The lesson here is not that one should try to defeat Obama or any other politician with the mechanics of pedagogy and politics. It could be argued that if Obama had been defeated in this way it would have been bad for the country. It could be argued that it would have been better for the debate as a whole. It could also be argued that the best outcome actually occurred or that Obama would have won anyway. The issue is that we don’t know because there was inequalities when it came to the manifestations of pedagogy and politics in this form. Furthermore it is not clear what the people saw or voted for because it was not clear they understood how pedagogy and politics was interplaying in this situation.

The important lesson in all of this is that the more Education one has both formally and informally the more people have the wisdom to understand how these mechanics work, to recognize and interpret them, and to decide if what way they should be used or not used and to what degree. Most importantly, for social justice, this must decide to what aim are these talents used. There may be an instance when a person who considers how pedagogy and politics intersects in their live may come to understand how to measure certain situations. The uneducated man for instance who can argue for drinking water from the little he has learned socially from their trade so that his village may survive may have their own level of importance. The educated politician who promises rain through the argumentative skills of their discipline which they learned at the university may have a different value if they put this in the service of their own campaign interests and not the public interest.

Eddie Hernandez

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